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FINDING THE PATH: Issues of Access to Research Resources Introduction Science, like any other living, growing thing, depends on and is limited by resources. To do their work, scientists must have access to a wide array of items—computers, basic lab equipment, cloned genes and such expensive machines as synchrotrons and particle accelerators. The pace of discovery depends on the magnitude of resources available for basic research. Decreasing the number of obstacles that scientists face in getting access to these resources speeds up scientific discovery; increasing the barriers slows things down. Today science is perhaps more successful than at any time in history. Over the past decade a revolution in molecular biology has opened the door to deciphering the genetic code of humans and other organisms —a development that promises world-shaking changes in medicine, agriculture, and many other areas. At the same time the breakneck development of the computer and of information technology has made it possible to gather, store, and analyze huge amounts of data, profoundly transforming research in numerous fields. Yet with these successes have appeared a number of developments that threaten the very access to resources that has made the successes possible. It is not surprising, of course, that in a time of such rapid change there should be things to learn and adapt to, but a number of the obstacles to resources have proven quite difficult to resolve. If they are not overcome, they threaten to slow the pace of research significantly. The major concerns that scientists identify fall roughly into two areas. The first set arises from the application of today's incredible computing power to science. How is it possible, for instance, to accumulate vast databases of information about people—their DNA, for instance, or details about their health
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FINDING THE PATH: Issues of Access to Research Resources and personal habits—without compromising their anonymity and privacy? What can be done to assure that various areas of science will have the proper software to take advantage of the today's powerful computers and digital storage technologies? Can disciplines such as ecology or psychology, which have always rewarded the individual data-taking researcher, find a place in their hierarchies for scientists who collect no data themselves but instead use computers to assemble and analyze multiple data sets accumulated by others, testing broad hypotheses and looking for general patterns? Unless such issues are resolved, the path to new data-rich resources will be winding and slow. The second set of concerns centers on the increasing commercialization of certain parts of science and the resultant blurring of the distinction between basic research in universities and technology development in industry. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the field of molecular biology, where giant pharmaceutical companies and tiny start-ups alike are pouring money into genetic research in the expectation that it will pay off in new drugs, in faster and more accurate medical diagnostics, in novel medical treatments, and in genetically improved crops and livestock. But a similar thing is happening in a number of other areas, such as microelectronics and materials science, where research findings get translated quickly into commercial products. As recently as twenty years ago, universities played very little role in commercializing their own research. Typically the government retained ownership of patentable inventions made with federal funds but rarely exercised its rights. Because scientists were, as they are today, free to publish the results of their research, advances in science quickly entered the public domain. This helped keep access to research resources open, in two complementary ways. First, any tools or materials that one university scientist developed were made available to all other scientists. There were, of course, always researchers who would keep the fruits of their work to themselves in order to maintain a competitive edge over their peers, but this was frowned upon. Sharing was the norm. Second, as long as university researchers were making their findings freely available to everyone, industry was generally willing to provide these basic scientists with research resources at little or no cost, on the theory that the results of the research would ultimately benefit industry. But the Bayh-Dole and Stevenson-Wydler acts of 1980 and the Technology Transfer Act of 1986 changed the rules, allowing universities to hold the rights to patents on innovations developed using federal funds. Universities have since plunged into the commercial world, licensing the research of their scientists to private companies. The goal of Congress in passing the acts was to encourage industry to exploit the research coming out of universities, and in this the acts have been successful, but they have also intermingled the interests of academia and industry to an unprecedented degree. Because of this intermingling, scientists are finding that access to research resources is often much more complex and frustrating than it has been in the past.
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FINDING THE PATH: Issues of Access to Research Resources To discuss those various concerns, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council held a meeting, “Finding the Path: Issues of Access to Research Resources”, on January 27-28, 1999. As conference chair David Galas described it, the meeting was intended “not to come to any sort of consensus or do an in-depth analysis of these issues, but rather to get the range of issues, as they exist today, on the table, to try to focus some of these issues, gather the opinion of the speakers, and be informed by the speakers about them, and then attempt to sharpen the focus by our discussion and, where it's possible, to interrelate the issues.” This summary of the conference has been divided into three chapters on material transfer agreements, on patents, and on data collection and informatics. These represent focal points to which are attached many important issues about the practices of stakeholders of research resources and the policies that shape their motivations.
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